Charlotte, N.C. – As a matter of reflex, anyone who witnessed the Republican gathering in Tampa and the Democratic convention that just finished here can’t help but compare the two.
But let’s start by examining what two weeks of mostly scripted political drama had in common:
— Overshadowed candidates: In Tampa, presidential nominee Mitt Romney was preceded by next-tier Republicans who emphasized their life stories (U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida) or hard-nosed approaches (New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie) over the candidate they were on stage to push.
In Charlotte, well-disciplined Democratic speakers never failed to point quickly and directly to the reason for the gathering – the re-election of President Barack Obama. The best of these, former President Bill Clinton, offered a better defense of the president than Obama did for himself on the closing night.
Clinton was an essential ingredient in Charlotte, said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, “because he has more credibility on our economy than any living politician. He was the most important validator that people in the center could possibly have. Republicans have no counterweight.”
In Tampa, Mitt Romney made a brief appearance to congratulate his wife Ann after her speech. Obama reserved his cameo for a bear hug with Clinton – an act that may have provided the defining image of final 60 days of the presidential campaign.
— Unpredictable moments: Clint Eastwood’s debate with an empty chair in Tampa may never be topped. “They vet most of the people, but I told them, ‘You can’t do that with me, because I don’t know what I’m going to say,’” Eastwood told his local California paper.
Democrats tried to compete in the gaffe department by removing from their platform a mention of Jerusalem as the true capital of Israel – and any mention of God. An attempt to fix things on the floor turned messy. Boos aimed at a sensitive point of Middle East diplomacy were quickly conflated by Republicans into raspberries aimed at the Almighty. “We can’t be seen running away from God,” worried state Sen. Ed Harbison of Columbus, inside the Charlotte arena.
— Weather-related chaos: Republicans had the tropical storm that became Hurricane Isaac. Democrats had a wave of thunderstorms that actually dropped more water. In each case, Mother Nature proved herself an astute editor. The conventions were required to condense their programs – for the better.
The GOP gathering was whittled from three days to four. “It made speakers hit their points hard, and get out of the way,” said Steve Butler, a Republican strategist who was in Tampa.
In Charlotte, Obama’s acceptance speech was moved from an open-air stadium and an audience of 70,000 to the smallest venue since the Atlanta convention in 1988. But better to have thousands turned away than a post-convention squabble over whether – or how – you packed the house.
— Overwhelming force: Both conventions were venues for soaring rhetoric conducted in the confines of minimum security prisons. Modern political gatherings have become occasions for a shock-and-awe display of law enforcement, with the desired result that protests left little or no imprint.
But ever-present barriers reduced both Tampa and Charlotte to unsightly gated communities – something that television cameras always seem to miss. The most visible security difference in the two cities was the cavalry: In flat-terrained Tampa, police preferred horses. In hilly Charlotte, police had a platoon of louder, go-anywhere dirt bikes.
Yes, there were surface differences. Democrats had better music – Foo Fighters and Mary Blige for the young, James Taylor for the older set. Unlike in the GOP, dance lessons appear to be a part of the Democratic indoctrination process.
Yet Republicans tend to dress better. Think the fraternity and sorority sections at University of Georgia football games.
Democrats were less hesitant to tug at heartstrings. If your eyes didn’t water at the sight of former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords’ enthusiastic stumble over the word “indivisible” as she gave the Pledge of Allegiance, please see your doctor.
But in terms of substance, the most surprising contrast between Tampa and Charlotte was the place of hot-button issues in speech after speech. In their attempt to lure independents, Republicans suppressed or sanitized references to abortion, gay marriage, and illegal immigration.
The GOP focus was on the jobs that have failed to appear in the three-and-a-half years that Obama has been president.
The Democratic convention in Charlotte gave extended time to social issues – though the reddest of red-meat speeches occurred before prime time TV. Sandra Fluke reprised her clash with Rush Limbaugh over insurance coverage for contraception. U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta stirred the crowd with an attack on what he sees as GOP attempts at voter suppression. “Regardless of who you love” became a pedestrian reference to new gay marriage endorsement in the Democratic platform.
One might theorize that this kind of talk was a diversion, but U.S. Rep. David Scott of Atlanta would disagree. “I don’t think you can hide the economic news,” he said. “We have embraced the economy. We have changed the economy.”
Rather than an attempt to obscure a bleak jobs picture, Scott saw the emphasis on social issues as a long-term bet placed on the table by Democrats. “This Democratic convention reflects the America that is and will be,” he said. Republicans, the congressman said, are standing pat.
The next 60 days will determine who played their hand right.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider